I was 15 years old when I left home for the first time. I had been accepted to the prestigious Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Ct., with promises of impressing college admission offices and future employers and, of course, the unshakable identity of being a “Porter’s Girl.” I excelled socially that first year, meeting girls from backgrounds very different from my own. I became loosely involved with the Jewish club at school, although I found it strange that the faculty leader was an active Jews for Jesus participant. My activity in the club waned the following year when I received numerous remarks from other students that put down the club, its members, and its purpose.
During my junior year, my second year, I lived in a dormitory with a girl who was Haitian-American. I never thought twice about living with someone who so obviously came from a different culture than me. In fact, I thought it was pretty cool. But near Thanksgiving of that year, my roommate and I had an altercation and she ultimately moved out of the room. What ensued perhaps changed the course of my life.
My roommate spoke negatively about me and my Judaism to the other students at Miss Porter’s. I returned to my room one afternoon after field hockey practice to find a swastika on my door, my room broken into, and possessions stolen and broken. Frightened, I called my parents. They threatened legal action against the school if the situation was not addressed. It was not. The anti-Semitic sentiment and harassment continued until June when I left for the summer.
A letter arrived at my home at the end of the summer addressed to my parents. It described me as delinquent, “intimidating to other students,” and a poor fit for the school. My standing as a student at Miss Porter’s was revoked. It was two days before my senior year of high school began. I scrambled to get together the appropriate paperwork to attend the local public high school, where I knew nobody.
I left for college in 2005 and attended Denison University, a small liberal-arts college in central Ohio. Like Miss Porter’s, there was a very small population of Jews at Denison, and Hillel was commonly known as being “uncool” to be a part of. For four years I denied being Jewish to anyone who asked. I desperately wanted to be a part of a good sorority, and being Jewish would not help me during my rush. It’s likely that by the time I graduated in 2009, most people who knew me did not know that I was Jewish.
I was what some people might call a “self-hater.” Please bear in mind that during some of the most impressionable years of my life, I was a part of a community that was intolerant of my identity. It was not until years later, when I made the decision to become a registered nurse and attended nursing school, that I discovered people who not only liked the fact that I was Jewish, but were curious about what that meant. I have patients who are Jewish, and with my background, I feel that I am able to communicate therapeutically and provide for them a sense of comfort that a non-Jewish nurse might not be able to.
Birthright is changing my life. As I write this, I am on a bus with 48 other Jews, perhaps some of whom have stories similar to mine. Many of these people know far more about their Jewish roots than I do, and some of them know less. We’re getting to know each other, we’re laughing together, we’re crying next to one another at Yad Vashem. Just as my experience at Miss Porter’s altered the trajectory of my life, I am finally changing course once again. And this time I’m headed to Tel Aviv.